Hiking with Kids in Big Bend National Park – Rise and Shine!
We woke and ate breakfast in our room (packing those groceries was a great idea). The sun was up and lighting Casa Grande before we managed to peak our heads out. Fortunately, for late April, the weather was still supposed to be pleasant. Meaning, not skin-searing heat – just a warm enough you would not want to stay in the direct sun for too long.
We took the winding mountain road out of the Chisos Basin and went east to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. We began at our farthest destination and worked our way back toward the Chisos. It seems like nearly every hike in Big Bend tells you to hike early or late to avoid the heat and crowds but that is not possible for every hike. So we tried to make our longest hike first. Which meant first stop, Santa Elena Canyon!
We tend to be ambitious travelers and plan more than tends to be feasible (particularly, with young kids) but we also have no problem being flexible enough to scratch things as needed. Our itinerary for hiking with kids keeps things on route without much wasted travel.
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail
- Mule Ears Overlook
- Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off
- Sam Nail Ranch
- Panther Junction
- Fossil Exhibit
- Optional: Grapevine Hills
Santa Elena Canyon Trail is the furthest away from Chisos and longest that we were going to do, at about 1.5 miles round trip. From there you can work your way back the way you came. Stop through Castolon for lunch and ice cream then swing by the Mule Ears Overlook to snap some pics and take in that vista!
From there proceed up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Route to the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off. This is the shorter of the two Burro Mesa hikes at only 1-mile round trip, but it is nearly all gravel wash and open sun. If you have very young kids and you come here in the middle of the day this may be the one to skip. Or, you may come back in the evening when it is cooler, we did see a lot of lizards on this hike – and, what kid doesn’t love lizard spotting?!
After the Lower Burro Mesa hike continue along the road, back up the way you came, and stop at the Sam Nail Ranch trail. This one is very easy and has a good amount of shade.
Side note: If you have older kids that can handle a five-mile hike in mostly open sun this is also the place you park to access Cattail Falls. It is unmarked for its own protection. It is a micro-ecosystem and a very important source of water for the region. If you decide to take this hike please be mindful of this and stay out of the water! To access the trailhead park at Sam Nail Ranch and proceed across the street to the closed road. You will hike it for about a mile before you reach the old parking lot, then it is another 1.5 miles to the falls.
After Sam Nail Ranch a break will be in order. Pass up the urge to turn toward the Chisos and take a nap and proceed past the turn off to Panther Junction. If you need gas there is a station just before you get to the visitor’s center.
Panther Junction is the park headquarters and has the nicest visitor’s center. You can get a nice bathroom break and watch a movie about the park in a cool dark theater. There is also a nice sized book selection to peruse.
Once you have refueled your energy stores, proceed north on Highway 385, like you are heading to Marathon. About ten minutes along you will come to the new Fossil Discovery Exhibit. This is a can’t miss. Especially, with kids! Take your time in this open air but shaded exhibit there is a lot to see.
From here it may be time to call it a day. It was for us and our crew. If your crew is a bit older and can handle another hike we would suggest heading to Grapevine Hills. You will backtrack toward Panther Junction, then head west toward the Chisos turn off. But just past it on the north side of Gano Spring Road is the turn off, Grapevine Hills Road, which will take you to the Grapevine Hills Trailhead.
Grapevine Hills is a two-mile roundtrip hike with a big payoff at the end. It would be a gorgeous sunset hike. This hike is also a good end of day because it is fairly close to the Chisos so once you are done the drive back in will not be long – which means dinner is near!
Happy Hiking and check out the links in the Itinerary for specifics on each trail!
Next: Day Five: BBNP (Boquillas, Hot Springs, & the Rio Grande)
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